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The heart of a poet

By Jean Lowerison | Theater review

Rule number one, no poufters!

Bus conductor Alfie Byrne (Barron Henzel) has a quiet life in Dublin with his spinster sister Lily (Jennie Gray Connard). He works with a handsome bloke named Robbie (Vander Turner).

In Ireland, there’s art in everything, and Alfie has the heart of a poet. He often treats passengers to a few lines from his favorite Oscar Wilde work, to the disgust of bus supervisor Mr. Carson (Thomas Fitzpatrick), who doesn’t appreciate the fact that Alfie’s recitations often make his buses late.

The cast of “A Man of No Importance” now playing at the Coronado Playhouse through Aug. 26

But Alfie’s main creative outlet is directing a small band of dedicated (if less than first-rate) actors who use a room in the local church (St. Imelda’s) as a theater.

Coronado Playhouse, continuing a string of fine musical productions, presents “A Man of No Importance” (based on the 1994 film starring Albert Finney) through Aug. 26.

Playwright Terrence McNally wrote the book, the music is by Stephen Flaherty, and Lynn Ehrens wrote the lyrics. Manny Bejarano directs.

Lily has a boyfriend, butcher Mr. Carney (Ralph Johnson), but she’s keeping him at arm’s length because she feels it her responsibility to see to it that her little brother is happily married first.

(l to r) Barron Henzel (Alfie) and Vander Turner (Robbie)
(Photos by Ken Jacques)

But there’s a void in Alfie’s life that he’s keeping secret, even from Lily. A 2018 audience would pick this up immediately from his extraordinary fondness for Wilde, his lack of a girlfriend and the fact that says he feels as if he’s in prison. But this show ran off-Broadway in 2002, so it’s spelled out: it’s 1964, and being gay can get you beaten by local thugs who don’t like “poufters.”

So Alfie buries himself in theater. He wants to do Wilde’s “Salome,” but hasn’t found his star – until one day Adele Rice (Kylie Young) gets on his bus.

Like so much in life, this will solve one problem but create others. The show is unusual in that respect – full of characters wanting one thing, who may not get what they want, but will end up with insight and self-discovery instead.

Most of the music is in the pop style, and all the major characters get a signature song. Since I’m a librarian by trade, “Books” has to be one of my favorites, in which Lily and Mr. Carney discuss the relative value of reading and marriage for Alfie:

The man needs a wife.

To ruin his life!

Not books!

“Art” is another surprising and funny song. Here the various cast members (who also serve as designers) offer preliminary ideas on costumes, props, lighting and choreography – all hilariously inappropriate.

But the major songs are “Man in the Mirror” (in which Alfie talks to himself) and “Love Who You Love” (sung separately by Alfie and Adele, and self-explanatory).

Coronado gets kudos for the willingness to attempt the difficult. I don’t know the film, but though the musical has its charms, it comes off as uneven in the quality of both writing and performance.

For example, how likely is it that anyone, even a committed Wilde fan like Alfie, wouldn’t know that doing “Salome” (with that sexy dance) in a church would be problematic? So, though some of the actors question the choice, there’s no real suspense here.

Some of the cast on opening night were either miscast or didn’t seem quite ready for prime time. Henzel has acquired a convincing Irish accent and his characterization is fine, but his Alfie needs to speak more clearly if he is to be understood.

Young’s Salome is pretty and a good actress. Her voice has plenty of power, though I found the quality a bit piercing.

Connard is solid as Alfie’s exasperated sister Lily. Turner’s Robbie is fine as well.

Always-reliable local favorite Ralph Johnson is double-cast: he’s fine as the butcher Mr. Carney, less convincing as the phantom of Oscar Wilde, returned to cheer Alfie on.

Michael Van Allen is fine as company member Baldy, stage manager for the theater company. He’s especially effective in his poignant signature song, “The Cuddles Mary Gave,” a paean to his late wife.

“A Man of No Importance” comes off as a bit dated but offers humor in the troupe’s characters and emotion in the show’s basic be-yourself premise.

—Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at infodame@cox.net.

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